Jesus Gives a Fishing Lesson

April 27, 2017

As we inch forward in John 21, I wanted to look at the developing story from the point of view of the Man on the Beach.

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Notice in all the post-resurrection appearances that Jesus initiates every interaction with his disciples: he appears in the Upper Room without an invitation, he “reveals himself” in Tiberius, he hangs out at the beach making breakfast and calls out to the fishermen. The guys are heading back to the old life, but Jesus beckons them to re-enter his story and to connect some dots in the plot. [John has brought a few loose threads into chapter 21, which we shall tie up in upcoming posts.] Once again, Jesus is calling them out of the old life and into something new.

What does Jesus say? “Children, you have no fish, have you?” (Jn 21:4). I have suggested that this was a gentle tease aimed at proud fishermen after a bad night. But Jesus is also bringing up a lesson he had demonstrated before. Could it be that he was initiating a review of a previous teachable moment? Hear the story as Luke tells it:

4When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 10:4-11)

Jesus commanded Simon Peter to go out into deep water and let down his nets. The professional fisherman said, “Hey, we’ve been at it all night and caught nothing. But if you insist . . .” [Can’t you just hear the sarcasm?] Peter had failed in his area of expertise, coming up empty after a full night’s effort, but he did as the Lord commanded and put down the nets. This time, to his shock and awe, they filled to overflowing! [Is the story sounding familiar now? Is it possible that the Man on the Beach is dropping hints that today’s post-resurrection lesson is a review of that earlier one?]

In both Luke and John, Jesus performs a miracle to make the point that without him they can’t catch fish. Both accounts end with a spectacular haul of fish leading to a confession of faith. In both cases, a disciple is responding to Jesus’ demonstration of power over nature, which for a Jew is definitely “God” territory!

But Jesus turns the attention back to Peter by saying, “From now on you will be catching people,” or in the more familiar translation, “from now on you will be fishers of men.”

Ah, so do you think (as Dale Bruner does in his commentary The Gospel of John) that the post-resurrection beach party is an evangelism lesson? Here is what Jesus says to the disciples on the beach:

Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish] (Jn 21:6). Jesus is teaching them that if they follow his lead and go where he sends them, they will find people who want to know the Savior. Jesus is teaching us that there are still people out there in our world who want to know Jesus, and we may very well be the ones who introduce him to them! I was summoned to the hospital awhile back by a gentleman who’s health crisis had turned into a faith crisis. Raised by an atheistic mother, he had no faith. And yet, in the last five years of her life, his mother had professed faith in Jesus Christ, and her life was transformed. He wanted to know how he could learn more about what she believed.

Bring some of the fish that you have just caught (21:10). Jesus expects that the disciples—charged with going out to preach, teach, and baptize (Matthew 28:19f)—will gather to Jesus those who believe and want to be part of the fellowship. Jesus is the one who empowers the catch, but their participation in the process is essential within God’s plan. Jesus expects that we, too, have a contribution to make toward Kingdom fellowship. Whom are we bringing into the Lord’s presence?

Come and have breakfast (21:12). Jesus invites the people his disciples “catch” to have fellowship around the table where the Lord presides. The sacramental act of sharing a meal—bread and wine, or bread and fish, or maybe a hamburger and beer—as friends around Christ’s table is sacred. We should do it more often! For the last ten years I have worshiped and assisted in a church that celebrates communion every week, and now am in fellowship at a church that conducts communion monthly. My spirit is hungry for more of the sacred meal.

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